Today marks my 6th day in a row being at home. Last week I was felled by the plague (again), but I worked from home while chugging soup, hot tea and Delsym. Then I canceled all plans for the weekend to rest, except for one short jaunt to the grocery store for the requisite pre-storm eggs and milk. Come Monday, half a foot of snow and ice fell. And here’s the scariest part: I haven’t minded one bit. I’ve been completely relishing in my homebodiness while “snowed in” — I’ve watched TV, I’ve cleaned my house, I’ve read a book, I’ve talked on the phone, I’ve watched some movies, I’ve made dinner. I’ve even had time to bake two loaves of bread.
Bread might be my favorite food, and I will eat it in any form: a sandwich, toast, crackers, rolls, scones, pancakes, even croutons. (I obviously would fail miserably at the Atkins diet.) You probably know that I a) enjoy a culinary challenge, b) am wary of what’s in my food, c) bake to offset stress and d) like preserving the slow ways of cooking. For those reasons, I started baking my own bread about a year ago. I used to be afraid of yeast and the finicky nature of dough, but I’ve learned that I like working with it as much as I like eating the finished product. Sure, there’s all that kneading and rising and punching. But it’s kind of a miracle when you can put some flour, butter and water in the oven and a light, flaky baked good comes out.
I’m still on a search for the ultimate bread recipe, but this sandwich loaf came close. While everyone else was running to the grocery for pre-snow bread that’s full of high-fructose corn syrup (why??), I was making mine. It might take awhile, but I think the effort is worth it.
When you’re working with yeast, the temperature of the liquids you mix in have to be just right — too hot and you kill the yeast, too cold and it won’t bloom. This time, I carefully measured my water and milk temperatures, but I didn’t realize my problem would come from the mixer. I left it on to knead the dough for 10 minutes, mainly to spare my fledgling arm muscles, but the mixer motor started smoking! Kneading heavy dough is apparently more than my discount Kitchen Aid could take, so I had to knead by hand the final three minutes. No harm done, and I channeled my frustration into developing some important gluten. Trust me, your house doesn’t only smell amazing after baking bread, but the taste difference is off the charts.
I hope you’ve all stayed warm, safe and dry if you’ve encountered our recent winter weather. If you’re bored, try baking this bread and let me know what you think. As for me, I may get cabin fever if left another week with no options, but otherwise I am content. Though I might be calling you later to practice my social skills.
“The mind is not a hermit’s cell, but a place of hospitality and intercourse.” – Charles Horton Cooley
4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 cup milk
5 cups unbleached bread flour
In the bowl of a mixer fastened with a dough hook, combine the yeast and 1/4 cup warm water. Let it stand until the yeast is dissolved, it starts to bubble and you can smell it, about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a saucepan, heat the milk to 105-115° F. Add water, butter, sugar and salt and stir until sugar is dissolved. **Let the mixture cool if it gets hotter than 115°. Stir the milk into the yeast.
Add 3 cups of flour to the milk and yeast and mix by hand or on low speed for 1 minute. Gradually add the remaining flour until the dough is moist but not sticky. Knead by hand on a floured surface or on low to medium speed until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Coat a large bowl with a very light layer of oil. Put the dough in and turn it to coat in oil. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm place. **My kitchen stays about 68° during the winter, so I turn on my oven for just a minute until it’s warm inside but not at all hot. It will usually stay as warm as I need it to be for the whole bread-making process. Let the bread rise until doubled, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Punch the bread down, turn it out of the bowl onto a floured surface and knead it briefly. Return it to the bowl, cover with oiled plastic wrap and let it rise again until doubled, another hour.
Grease two loaf pans. Punch down the dough, remove from the bowl and divide in half. Form it into two loaves and place the seam-side down in the pans. Cover loosely again with plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm place until the bread rises above the pan in a dome. It will take about an hour.
Preheat the oven to 450°. (If you’re using the oven to warm the dough, remove it about 20 minutes before you need to bake it and preheat the oven.) Bake the loaves for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350° and bake for 30 minutes. You’ll know the bread is done because the bottom sounds hollow when you tap it. Remove the loaves from the pans and let them cool on a rack. Enjoy!
The recipe says these loaves slice well for sandwiches and also will stale slowly. If you’re not going to use both, wrap the other loaf in plastic wrap and aluminum foil and freeze until you need it.
*Adapted from Joy of Cooking